If only for its refusal to sand down the rough edges of its protagonist’s life, “Winnie Mandela” stands out in a field of movies that offer up sanitized, classroom-ready biographies of famous people. But this is a movie that’s destined to be remembered for proving that Jennifer Hudson’s “Dreamgirls” performance was no fluke; here, she hits a vast array of notes even though she doesn’t get to sing until the final credits.
While “Winnie Mandela” mostly connects its plot dots in a purely predictable biopic fashion, writer-director Darrell Roodt (co-scripting with Andre Pieterse, working from the biography by Anne Marie du Preez Bezdrob) clearly went into the project knowing that Mandela’s paranoia, infidelity and proximity to a murder case were all as much part of her story as her heroism and her support of Nelson Mandela’s world-changing revolution in South Africa.
Born in a small village to a father who wanted a son, and then educated in Johannesburg, where Winnie (Hudson) would also work as a model and eventually meet young firebrand lawyer Nelson (played here by Terrence Howard), you can pretty much tick all the life-story beats off a mental list. It never feels overly rote, however, because Hudson and Howard take these larger-than-life figures and bring their courtship and eventual marriage to human proportions. The exquisite 1950s period detail helps, too.
As the years proceed, we see the apartheid government of South Africa separate the Mandelas for decades, crack down on the African National Congress and generally fight racial equality in every way possible. The film offers up Elias Koteas as a government goon who seems to have a particular loathing for the Mandelas and everything they stand for, but giving us the same guy every time the establishment blocks progress diminishes the story’s strength. Rather than imply institutionalized racism, it feels like South Africa could afford only one racist, or that the country’s barbaric rule was borne entirely on the back of one bad apple.
(Also annoying? The fact that every newspaper headline in the film has the exact same font.)
There’s the 1976 Soweto uprising, and Winnie Mandela’s banishment from and eventual return to the area. When she comes back, she’s soon under the protection of a “football club” that becomes less a security force and more a goon squad, contributing to the Mandelas’ separation and her eventual murder trial. This is the sort of messy business a lesser film would have pushed offstage, but Roodt — who knows the apartheid terrain well, as the director of “Sarafina!” and the “Cry, the Beloved Country” remake — isn’t afraid to let his heroine have her unsympathetic aspects.
It’s Hudson’s magnetic performance that allows the filmmaker’s gambit to pay off. She effectively ages decades, displaying both strong will (surviving months of brutal solitary confinement, away from her young children) and moments of vulnerability. Hudson is carrying the film on her shoulders, and she proves herself up to the task.
And while Howard at first seemed miscast as Nelson Mandela — having become so good at playing rakes and ne’er-do-wells — he quickly makes himself at home with the character, displaying Mandela’s passion and morality without ever seeming like he’s posing for Mount Rushmore.
It would have benefited “Winnie Mandela” if Roodt had been as bold with the mechanics of his storytelling as he is with his inclusion of the title character’s less savory moments. But its strengths, particularly the two lead performances, far outweigh its flaws.
It’s an unexpectedly abundant season for black history, what with another Mandela movie and “12 Years a Slave” joining “Winnie Mandela” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” on screens before year’s end, but Hudson and Howard’s work here is enough to ensure that this film doesn’t get entirely lost at the multiplex.
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